Responsa in a Moment
Vol. 16, No. 4
Why is the Shabbat before Pesah called Shabbat Hagadol?
(Orah Hayyim 430)
By Rabbi David Golinkin
Question from Rabbi David Ebstein of Jerusalem: Why is the Shabbat before Pesah called Shabbat Hagadol?
Responsum: Many rabbis and scholars have tried to solve this riddle since the 12th century (see the Bibliography below). The mystery was already emphasized by four books from the 12th century attributed to “the school of Rashi”: “And the Shabbat before Pesah, the people are accustomed to call it Shabbat Hagadol, and they do not know why”.(1) Indeed, I myself briefly discussed this topic in my responsum about eating Kitniyot on Pesah (see Golinkin). Yet, ein bet midrash lelo hiddush, there is no Torah study without an innovation. In my responsum below, I will survey many of the explanations, add some newly discovered sources, and arrive at what I believe to be the original use of the term Shabbat Hagadol.
I) Supposed Christian Origins of Shabbat Hagadol
A number of modern scholars have tried to connect Shabbat Hagadol to Christian sources and terminology.
King James, 1611: “for that Sabbath day was an high day”.
New English Bible, 1970: “since that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity”.
Revised Standard Version, 1971: “for that sabbath was a high day”.
New Revised Standard Version, 1989: “especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity”.
Hebrew New Testament, Franz Delitzsch, 1877: וגדול יום השבת ההוא – [=and great was that Sabbath day]
Hebrew New Testament, 1976: כי גדול היה אותו יום שבת — [=for great was that Sabbath day]
Vulgate, Latin, late 4th century and 1590: “erat enim magnus dies ille Sabbati” [=for that was a great sabbath day].
It’s worth noting that although the Latin and Hebrew translations of the Greek say that that Shabbat was a great Sabbath day, none of the English translations say that that Shabbat was “great”. In any case, according to this source, Pesah was a high day, a day of great solemnity, a great Sabbath day; but not the Shabbat before Pesah.
In 1948, Solomon Zeitlin – who was preceded in this theory by Adolph Jellinek in 1851 – wrote: “Now we must assume that the early Christians who called the Sabbath before Pascha (Easter) the Great Sabbath must have adopted this nomenclature from the Jews”. However, as many rabbis and scholars have stressed – and as Zeitlin admits — the term Shabbat Hagadol does not appear anywhere in rabbinic or Geonic literature (ca. 500-1000). It first appears in the 12th century as we shall see below. It makes no sense to claim that an ancient Jewish term was adopted by the Christians in the first or fourth century even though it’s first mentioned by Jews in the 12th century!
Zunz in 1859, Lewy in 1904, and Elbogen in 1913 also assumed that the term the Great Sabbath of the Church Fathers passed to the Jews, but they offer no proof of how or when this occurred. Finally, Yuval writing in the year 2000 also claimed that the Jews of 12th century Germany began to use the Christian term and then the rabbis followed suit, but he offers no actual proof that the Jews borrowed this term from their Christian neighbors.
II) Medieval Homiletical Explanations
There are three versions of this medieval explanation:
These are clever explanations, but if the intent was to commemorate a miracle, it should have been called Shabbat Haness or Shabbat Hanissim.
This is the explanation given by Hizkiyah ben Manoah (France, mid-13th century) in his Hizkuni commentary to Exodus 12:3 and by Rabbi David Abudraham (Seville, written in 1340) in his classic halakhic work (Abudraham Hashalem, p. 210). In other words, taking the Paschal Lamb on Shabbat, the 10th of Nisan, was the first mitzvah performed by the Israelites, so they named that day Shabbat Hagadol.
Again, this is a clever explanation, but if so, it should have been called Shabbat Hamitzvah, the Mitzvah Shabbat.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yoskonto, also known as Rabbi Yitzhak of Hungary (ca. late 12th century) says that it’s called Shabbat Hagadol “because on the Shabbat before Pesah the people tarry to hear the derashah [=sermon] until after noon, until close to Minhah… it seems to the people that the day is Gadol [=large] and longer than another day, therefore they called [it] Shabbat Hagadol” just as Yom Kippur is called Tzoma Rabba, the big fast… “and it’s the custom of people…[if] they sit in one place and have nothing to do, it’s the custom to say how this day is Gadol”.(3) Indeed, Pinhas Roth (p. 108), quoting Prof. Simhah Emanuel, points out that that this is the first mention of the Derashah or lengthy sermon on Shabbat Hagadol.
As Rabbi Kasher points out, the Talmud actually calls Yom Kippur Yoma Rabba, the great day (Rosh Hashanah 21a and elsewhere) and thus Rabbi Moshe Matt (Galicia, ca. 1551-1606) says that according to this explanation, this Shabbat should have been called Shabbat Rabba (Mateh Moshe, paragraph 542). In any case, this explanation is not convincing. Yom Kippur is called Yoma Rabba, the Great Day, due to its importance. It’s a stretch to say that Shabbat Hagadol derives its name from a lengthy sermon,
This explanation is adduced by Rabbi Kasher and Akiva Ben-Ezra without a source. In other words, it’s the Shabbat [of the] Gadol, of the great rabbi.
This explanation was first given by Rabbi Menahem ibn Zerah (Spain, 1310-1385) in his Tzedah Laderekh (4, 3, 3, ed. Warsaw, 1880, p. 207). It was also given by Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (Poland, 1561-1640) in his Bayit Hadash commentary to Tur Orah Hayyim 429, s.v. Katav Beit Yosef.
This was first suggested by Rabbi Moshe Matt (cf. above) in the name of his teacher Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Lublin, 1510-1573; in Mateh Moshe paragraph 542): “It’s called Shabbat Hagadol, after the Haftarah which is read on that Shabbat, in which it says: ‘Lo. I will send to you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord, lifnei vo yom Hashem, hagadol v’hanora (Malakhi 3:23), and this also explains why it’s called Shabbat Hagadol and not Shabbat Gadol”. However, Rabbi Shlomo Luria himself rejected this explanation. If it was in honor of the Haftarah, it would have been called “Shabbat V’arva”, the first word of the Haftarah, just like Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Shabbat Nahamu right after Tisha B’av.
In his book Tzafenat Paneah (Venice, 1653, fol. 67d) Rabbi Yosef Di Trani (Greece, 1568-1639) relates in the name of his father Rabbi Moshe Di Trani (Safed, 1500-1580) that Moses asked Pharaoh for one day a week of rest, Shabbat, and every Motza’ei Shabbat [=Saturday night] they would return to toil and affliction. “But on that Shabbat… they did not return to slavery [after Shabbat], therefore it’s called Shabbat Hagadol, i.e., a long Sabbath day”. This is a nice derashah, but clearly not the simple explanation.
Some say that Shabbat Hagadol is a corruption of Shabbat Hagaddah, since there is a custom to read the Haggadah on the Shabbat before Pesah. As Rabbi Kasher points out, this explanation is farfetched for two reasons. True, there was a custom for children to read the Haggadah on the Shabbat before Pesah (Ra’aviya, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi, Bonn, ca. 1140-1225, paragraph 425, ed. Aptowitzer, Vol. 2, p. 58), but the custom of adults reading the Haggadah on the Shabbat before Pesah is first mentioned by Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau (Austria or Slovakia ca. 1400), who lived over 250 years after Shabbat Hagadol is first mentioned. In addition, many famous poskim such as the Gaon of Vilna and Rabbi Ya’akov Emden were opposed to this custom.
This fact was pointed out by many scholars beginning in 1855, including Landshute, Zunz, Chajes, Elbogen, Aptowitzer, Gaguine, Bernstein, Kasher, Ben-Ezra, Karlinsky and Ashenazi.
Here are the sources, including two just recently published:
Viktor Aptowitzer stated back in 1917 on the basis of sources 1, 3, and 4 that the custom of calling all the Shabbatot before Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot and Rosh Hashanah Shabbat Hagadol was an Italian custom. However, we have now seen that this custom is documented in five early sources from Italy, one from Turkey and the Balkans, two from Corfu, and one manuscript of unknown provenance
The question is: which custom came first? Did the name Shabbat Hagadol begin with Pesah and spread to the other holidays; or did it begin with all the holidays and end up referring just to the Shabbat before Pesah?
Zunz, Lewy, Elbogen and Yuval maintained that the Jews borrowed the term Shabbat Hagadol from the Christians (as above) as a reference to the Shabbat before Pesah. They and Ben-Ezra also claim that this term was later transferred to Shavuot (and Sukkot?).
I believe that the opposite is the case. Rome and Italy were the capital of Catholicism. If the term Shabbat Hagadol was borrowed from the Church and Easter, we would expect that it would be used there only in connection with Pesah, but it is used in Italy beginning in the early 12th century in connection with all three Pilgrim Festivals and Rosh Hashanah! Furthermore, according to the scholars quoted above, the term Shabbat Hagadol originally applied to Pesah and was then transferred to the other Festivals. However, four of the Italian sources for Shabbat Hagadol quoted above are just as early as the French/German sources which only mention Pesah!
Therefore, I believe that originally, all of the Shabbatot before these holidays were called Shabbat Hagadol. Rabbi Karlinsky (pp. 172, 179), thinks that this was a continuation of the Talmudic custom of calling all three Shabbatot before the three pilgrim festivals Shabta D’rigla as mentioned above (Moed Kattan 5a; Berakhot 30a; and more). On the other hand, perhaps they were called Shabbat Hagadol because they included many Piyutim which made them Gadol, or important. At some point, the name of the other great Sabbaths fell by the wayside.
As I maintained in my teshuvah about Kitniyot, just as the original custom of not eating Kitniyot related originally to all the Pilgrim Festivals but the prohibition ended up sticking to Pesah, the same thing happened regarding Shabbat Hagadol. Originally, this was the name of the Shabbat before all of the Pilgrim Festivals and Rosh Hashanah, but in the end, the name remained only in connection with Pesah.
May we contemplate all of these sources as we listen to the rabbi’s sermon or review the Haggadah on Shabbat Hagadol!
3 Nisan 5782
Aptowitzer – Viktor Aptowitzer, “Zu Raschi’s Pardes”, ZfHB 20 (1917), pp. 14-15 (German)
Ashkenazi – Shlomo Ashkenazi, Dor Dor Uminhagav, second revised edition, Tel Aviv, 1987, pp. 114-123
Ben-Ezra – Akiva Ben-Ezra, Minhagei Hagim, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 204-214 (an abbreviated or censored version of this chapter appeared in Shanah B’shanah 5742, pp. 272-280)
Bernstein – Shimon Bernstein, “Piyutim Upaytanim Hadashim Meihatekufah Habizantit”, Horev 5/9-10 (Nisan 5699 ), pp. 114-115
*Chajes — Chajes, Rivista Israelitica 7 (1910), p. 153 in middle of note (Italian; quoted by Aptowitzer)
Chajes — Z.P. Chajes (Hayyot) in Peirush Massekhet Mashkin Lerabbeinu Shlomo Ben Hayatom, Berlin, 1910, p. 15, note 10
Elbogen – Yitzhak Moshe Elbogen, Hateffilah Beyisrael Behitpathutah Hahistorit, Tel Aviv, 1972, pp. 163 and 439, note 29 (the German original appeared in 1913)
*Fraind – Rabbi T. Fraind, Moadim L’simhah 4 (Nisan), Jerusalem, 2004, pp. 73-74
Gaguine – Rabbi Shem Tov Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Kaidan, Vo. 1, 1934, p. 177; Vol. 3, London, 1948, pp. 1-2
Golinkin – David Golinkin, “Rice, Beans and Kitniyot on Pesah”, Responsa in a Moment, Vol. IV, Jerusalem, 2017, p. 63-64, note 14 (also at Schechter.edu) = Teshuvot Va’ad Hahalkhah Shel Knesset Harabbanim B’yisrael, Vol. 3 (5788-5789), p. 54, note 14 (also at responsafortoday.com)
*Hilvitz – A. Hilvitz, Hikrei Zemanim, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 5741, pp. 27-40
*Hoffman – Lawrence Hoffman, “The Jewish Lectionary, the Great Sabbath, and the Lenten Calendar…”, Time and Community in Honor of Thomas Julian Talley, edited by J. Neil Alexander, Washington, 1992, pp. 3-19
*Jellenik – A. Jellenik, Der Orient Literaturblatt des Orients, 1851, p. 287 (German; quoted by Landshuthe and by Yuval, p. 230, note 45)
Karlinsky – Rabbi Hayyim Karlinsky, “Hamekorot Lashem Shabbat Hagadol Bamidrashim”, Or Hamizrah 18/3 (Nisan 5729), pp 172-179
Kasher 1946 – Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shleimah, Parts 10-11, New York, 1946, p. 64, paragraph 72; Appendix 6, pp. 181-183; pp. 32-33
Kasher 1967 – Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher, Haggadah Shleimah, third edition, Jerusalem, 1967, pp. 50-54
Landshuthe – Eliezer Landshuthe, Maggid Meireishit, Berlin, 1855, p. xxi
*Leshem – Hayyim Leshem, Shabbat Umoadei Yisrael, Vol. 2, Tel Aviv, 5725, pp. 337-339
Lewy – J. Lewy, “Ein Vortrag uber das Ritual des Pesach-Abends”, Jahres-Bericht…, Breslau, 1904, p. 9
Roth – Pinhas Roth, Sefer Hapardes…, M.A. Thesis, Hebrew University, New York, 2008, pp. 108-109
Sharon – Moshe Sharon, “Shabbat Hagadol al Ketovet Kever Mi-Ramle Min Hameah Ha’asirit”, Shalem 1 (5734), pp. 1-14
Stal – Rabbi Ya’akov Yisrael Stal, “Piyyut Ashorer Letzuri…”, Mekhilta 2 (5781), pp. 5-6
Tabory – Yosef Tabory, Mo’adei Yisrael Bitkufat Hamishnah Vehatalmud, Jerusalem, 1995, p. 127 and note 186 (an extensive bibliography)
Yuval – Yisrael Ya’akov Yuval, Shenei Goyim B’vitnekh, Tel Aviv, 2000, pp. 223-241 (my thanks to Dr. Moti Arad for this reference)
Zeitlin – Solomon Zeitlin, “The Liturgy of the First Night of Passover”, Jewish Quarterly Review 38 (1948), pp. 457-459
Zunz – Leopold Zunz, Die Ritus, Berlin, 1859, pp. 9-10 = Yom Tov Lippman Zunz, Minhagei Tefillah U’piyyut Bekehillot Yisrael, Jerusalem, 2016, pp. 8-9
* I have not yet seen these items in a direct fashion.
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David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.